Joe Cain, Moon Pies & Mobile Mardi Gras

Mobile dates its Mardi Gras to 1703, a decade and a half before New Orleans was founded

Chief Slacabamorinico would have been proud.

The Chickasaw leader was “reincarnated” by Mobile resident Joe Cain in 1866 as a rebellion against occupying Union forces.

The Civil War had brought a halt to Mardi Gras celebrations, and in April 1865, Union troops took control of the city.

Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mobile’s Mardi Gras festivities resumed unexpectedly the following year when Joseph Stillwell Cain, a local clerk and former member of the Tea Drinkers Mystic Society, led a parade through the occupied city dressed as a fictional Indian named Chief Slackabamarinico.

Cain exuberantly declared an end to Mobile’s suffering and signaled the return of the city’s parading activities, to the delight of local residents. He also succeeded in moving Mobile’s celebration from New Year’s Eve to the traditional Fat Tuesday. 

Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

During and after Reconstruction, Mardi Gras became the premier event of the city’s social elite and a way of celebrating the “Lost Cause.” New societies representing different portions of the city’s diverse population began to appear. The Order of Myths (OOM), established in 1867, chose as its emblem Folly chasing Death around a broken column, imagery that was seen by many as a symbol of the “Lost Cause.” At the end of the traditional OOM parade, Death is defeated, and Folly wins the day.

In 1870, a group of young men between the ages of 18 and 21 formed the Infant Mystics, probably because they were too young to join other societies. The Knights of Revelry, formed in 1874. Their emblem of Folly dancing in a champagne glass between two crescent moons remains a familiar site during Mardi Gras parades.

Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mobile has been doing it ever since and they mark the annual occasion with majestic parades, colorful floats, and flying Moon Pies.

When people think of Mardi Gras, they think of New Orleans. But long before there even was a New Orleans, Mobile was celebrating Mardi Gras in the run-up to Ash Wednesday.

Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Mobile dates its Mardi Gras to 1703, a decade and a half before New Orleans was founded. The raucous annual celebration originated in the Port City, not in the Crescent City.

Mardi Gras celebrations begin two and a half weeks before Fat Tuesday and Mobile comes to life. Elaborate themed floats manned by masked mystic societies, mounted police and marching bands wind through downtown Mobile and surrounding areas, entertaining nearly a million revelers each year.

Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Many of the mystic societies hold annual formal balls. Some of the balls are private, open only to members and their families; others sell tickets to guests. Membership rules vary. Members need to be born into some societies; other groups invite residents to join, and still others accept anyone who pays the dues.

A specific decorum regarding gown design for royalty still prevails, according to the late Gordon Tatum Jr., former curator of the Mobile Carnival Museum.

Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

“Cover the ankles,” he said. “It may be split to San Francisco, but cover the ankles.”

The cost for robes, gowns, and scepters, as well as full-out partying, is only governed by how deep Daddy’s pockets are. The museum’s least expensive outfit is estimated at $40,00.

Mobile has decreed that moon pies are the official throwing treat from Mardi Gras floats (too many people were being conked on the head by hard candy).

Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Mobile Carnival is a family-friendly time of parties, balls, parades, and revelry.

Find your spot and get ready to catch Moon Pies, beads, and trinkets. And not to forget the man who kept Mardi Gras alive, Joe Cain Day is observed the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. 

The party has started in Downtown Mobile and will end with Fat Tuesday on February 13.

Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

But, after all, if, as a child, you saw, every Mardi Gras, the figure of Folly chasing Death around the broken column of Life, beating him on the back with a Fool’s Scepter from which dangled two gilded pig bladders; or the figure of Columbus dancing drunkenly on top of a huge revolving globe of the world; or Revelry dancing on an enormous upturned wine glass -wouldn’t you see the world in different terms, too?

—Eugene Walter, The Untidy Pilgrim

Beauty of the Desert: Arizona in Bloom

Spring is the most glorious of seasons in the Southwest

Growing up in Alberta I always feuded with winter, a cantankerous, disagreeable season that seemingly lasted forever. As a snowbird, I take great delight in rambling around the desert in shorts and T-shirt searching for signs of wildflowers.

Many people consider Arizona to be a land of two seasons, summer and the absence of summer. But us-snowbirds know better. Spring is the most glorious of seasons in the Desert Southwest, with days of glorious sunshine, azure skies, and carpets of wildflowers. Round these parts, we often start getting whiffs of spring in January and it goes full bore through much of February and on into May. Chew on that, Old Man Winter.

Bartlett Lake. March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Unless you’ve actually visited the Desert Southwest, any mention of the region probably conjures up images of an arid wasteland devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth: the landscape is, in fact, full of life—and when the desert blooms you will want to be there.

This amazing transformation usually happens by mid-March, but only during the years when winter rains have been the right amount and springtime temperatures the right range of degrees. When that occurs, a dry and seemingly lifeless desert springs to life in a glorious tapestry of purple, white, yellow, orange, and green.

Between Casa Grande and Florence. March 2015 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

More than 600 species of flowers, plants, and shrubs join the spectacle with their short-lived but profuse blossoms. Desert blooms typically appear in this order: bladderpods, Mexican poppies, chuparosa, globemallow, brittlebush, and then other various cacti species.

What a difference a year makes. As Arizona wildflower seasons go, 2018 was almost a complete bust. But 2019 has flower watchers trembling with anticipation. More flowers bloomed this January than all of last spring, and it wasn’t even close.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park. March 2010 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Why such a discrepancy? Why do Arizona wildflower seasons vary so drastically from year to year? And what makes 2019 look so promising?

The short answer is the moisture. But it’s more complicated than just the amount. Timing is crucial. A truly spectacular spring begins two seasons before. Here’s why:

Spring-blooming annuals must germinate in the autumn. They require a “triggering rain” of an inch or more. Last October brought widespread, often record-setting, rains to the Phoenix area. That was the first indication the 2019 season might be something special. That likely roused plenty of little seeds from their desert slumber.

Peridot Mesa. March 2016 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

After the triggering rain, more storms are needed. Rains should total at least an inch per month through March, and more is better. The rains should occur consistently through the winter so there are no lengthy drying spells. That’s been the case for much of the state over the past few months. There was even a bonus New Year’s Eve snow gently melting across great swaths of the desert.

Another factor is temperature. Some annuals, poppies in particular, are delicate little divas that don’t like excessive heat. When thermometers push into the mid-80s, poppies start looking for the exits. Early heat waves have curtailed some recent seasons. But this year’s long streak of mild temperatures has given them a chance to flourish.

Picacho Peak State Park. March 2015 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Even with all of the right conditions in place, there’s no guarantee of an abundant wildflower season. Factors such as soil type, vegetation cover, and rodent population can affect blooming.

Usery Mountain Regional Park. March 2009 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Still, 2019 is shaping up to be a very good wildflower year. It should be above average just about everywhere, and has the potential to be spectacular in places. An event this rare should not be missed. Start making plans to venture outdoors and revel in satiny sun, balmy breezes, and a desert streaked with color.

Remember to bring your camera.


Sonoran Desert National Monument near Gila Bend. February 2019 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Almost every person, from childhood, has been touched by the untamed beauty of wildflowers.

—Lady Bird Johnson